January 1, 2005

DEFINING QUESTION:

CHAPTER ONE: Memories of Summer When Baseball Was an Art, and Writing about It a Game By ROGER KAHN

Clarence at the Bat

We are talking of summer evenings ... in the time that I lived so

successfully, disguised to myself as a child.

--JAMES AGEE,

A Death in the Family

I saw my first World Series game in 1920, seven years before I was born. The viewing instrument was my father, who relished baseball and had so vivid a memory that friends called him, somewhat laboriously it now seems to me, the Walking Encyclopedia.

We were indeed walking, along Prospect Avenue, a quiet Brooklyn street, under sycamore trees with peeling, patchy bark, and fruit clusters abrim with itching powder. Far back from the bluestone sidewalk, large homes sprawled behind shields of hydrangea bushes and spiked, iron fences--immobile vigilantes in a neighborhood without crime.

My mother had banished us into the springtime for violating a rule: no ballplaying in the house. All mothers in that generation said no ballplaying in the house. All mothers also said, "Take off those sneakers. Take them off at once! Don't you know that sneakers are bad for your feet?"

My father had decided to show me how to spin a breaking ball, and winding up in a long hallway--I wore Buster Brown oxfords, not sneakers--I turned out to have more wrist snap than control. The gray rubber ball slipped off my fingers and slammed into one wall, ricocheted into the other and went crashing along the hardwood floor. All that machine-gun racket summoned my mother from her book, which I believe was Leaves of Grass. A covey of Brooklyn mothers was rediscovering Walt Whitman that season, and homes like ours resounded with the poet's sometimes mournful tread. Grass, I knew, because my mother recited the lines, is the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Outside I was not certain if my father had decided on a destination. (One particular dream seemed too extravagant.) More immediately, I had no idea what conversational paths my father, the walking encyclopedia, would navigate this sunlit afternoon.

Ginkgo trees. That was his topic on the previous Saturday. Ginkgo trees grew in Brooklyn, but did not originate there. They were found first in Eastern China. They had vanished from the forests but remained on the grounds of temples. These odd trees, with fan-shaped leaves, right here on Prospect Place, probably had religious significance in old Cathay, during the time of Marco Polo, and what did I think about that?

Nothing, really, except that ginkgo was a funny-sounding name. I was seven years old. It was nice to walk with Dad, and I wanted to make an effort to show that I shared his interest in natural wonders.

"If you put a grizzly bear and a Bengal tiger in the same cage at the Prospect Park Zoo, and they got into a fight, which one would win, the grizzly bear or the Bengal tiger?"

My father was short, green-eyed, bald, mustached, powerful, and he smiled and looked into the distance. "Nature," he said, "is red in tooth and claw." Then he began to tell me about the sycamores.

I seem to remember a great deal about the trees of Brooklyn, but I merely tolerated the arboreal lectures, if a seven-year-old can be said to tolerate a parent, in the hope that my father would veer away from botany. He played third base for City College, covering, he said, "a dime, or on a good day a quarter." The coach valued him for his bat, I suppose. Whenever I watched my father play weekend baseball, he walloped long drives over and beyond left center field that thrilled and awed me. At some point, when I was very young, I decided that there was nothing I wanted to do in life as much as I wanted to hit long, high drives over and beyond left center field, like my father. Through six decades--births and deaths, bonanzas and busts, wars, divorce, and even the absurdity of major league labor strikes--that part of me has never changed.

Squealing with the steel wheels rolling on steel tracks, the Nostrand Avenue trolley rattled across our path. Unlike the trolleys in Manhattan that rode over submerged electrical lines, Brooklyn trolley cars drew power from an overhead cable. A sort of crane rose from the top of the Brooklyn trolleys, maintaining contact with the high cable unless the trolley swung around a turn too rapidly. Then the crane broke away from the high cable, losing contact in a crackle of sparks. The motorman had to dismount and reposition the crane, a delicate process, often conducted over a background of "godammit," and worse.

"Wee Willie Keeler drove a trolley car," my father said. We were crossing Nostrand in the wake of the trolley. "Little bit of a fellow, Keeler, but he almost always hit .300. If you put a gray derby upside down on the green grass in right field, Keeler could slap a line drive into the hat. Quite a batsman, but when he was finished he had to go to work as a trolley motorman."

My heart leaped up. This was not going to be another ginkgo tree perambulation. This walk would shine with baseball talk. My father's strides became urgent. Periodically, I had to shift from walk to canter matching his lurching pace. I would happily have sustained a full gallop to talk baseball with my father. That part of me never changed either, for as long as he was on the earth. There was nobody I enjoyed talking baseball with, as much as this green-eyed, strong-armed, gentle, fierce, mustached, long-ball hitting, walking encyclopedia who was my father.

Touches of sad far-off days still linger. Diffident and soft-spoken men approached my father on our walks and offered him boxes of pencils for a dime. His green eyes softened and he found the dime, but he never accepted the pencils. Every Sunday the New York Times published a sepia picture section called the rotogravure, after a particular printing process, and from time to time momentous photographs appeared:

Benito Mussolini, the jet-jawed "Sawdust Caesar"; pipe-smoking, avuncular, oddly ominous Joseph Stalin; a sort of landscape--smoke rising from a Chinese village after Japanese soldiers had ravaged the houses and the people. The Depression reigned and the dictators were rising.

One day a deferential baldheaded man came to the door selling paper flowers cleverly folded in brightly colored little pots. He told my father that he had been a businessman in Germany and that he had opposed the Nazis and one day the Brownshirts came and broke his shop windows and struck him with clubs and terrorized his wife. My father bought a dozen of the little pots with paper flowers. It was natural to miss your homeland, my father said to the refugee flower salesman, but his decision to leave Nazi Germany might in the end turn out to be a good one. America was the land of opportunity.

The salesman said, in a confessional tone, "But I am Jewish."

My father blinked. "Even so," he said, "this is the land of opportunity.

I mention such matters to suggest aspects of the world in which my father and I lived when I was seven. I listened as hard as I could to geopolitical conversations, but my ability to contribute was nonexistent, except for certain questions.

"Why didn't you take the poor man's pencils, Dad?"

"Because now he can sell them to someone who really needs them."

"What are Brownshirts?"

"Hooligans. German hooligans. A bad lot."

I wanted to do more than ask questions. I wanted to understand the world around me and to be respected as a person capable of understanding. My father understood everything. That was why people called him The Walking Encyclopedia. I wanted to be like my father. I wanted to enter the world of men. Baseball became my magic portal.

A game of catch is a complicated communication. The father has the stronger arm, the surer hands. The child has the enthusiasm, a passionate hope that his ballplaying will improve, and something immediate to find out. The first time a baseball bounces against your shin, or pops out of your glove into your cheekbone, you learn the presiding reality of the sport. The ball is hard. After that, you make a decision. Is the pain the ball inflicts worth the pleasure of playing the game? Pain and pleasure, the stuff of love and life, runs strong in baseball.

I don't remember consciously deciding to play ball, but I knew boys who made decisions not to play. "Baseball is boring," one said. I sensed that it was not boredom at all, but fright, dominating hard-ball terror, that led him to choose kick-the-can, or stoop tag, or other city games where pain did not lurk disguised as a one-hop grounder.

In childhood I suffered on Ferris wheels, particularly in the jiggling cars that swung on rails high over Coney Island and threatened to launch you into the Atlantic. Large Airedales alarmed me. But I was not afraid of a baseball. The passion to play dominated my spirit, that and the distinct but overlapping passion to win the good opinion of my father. He hit grounders at me in a dozen sandlots, ten thousand grounders in dusty, city fields. The governing discipline was severe. To subdue a grounder you have to watch the ball, watch it from the bat, watch it skim and bounce, watch it right into your glove. But that exposes your face and a baseball can glance off a pebble and zoom into your teeth, like a micro version of one of today's smart bombs. You see it suddenly, mouth-high, and feel the ball at the same instant. The baseball feels like a concrete punch. After a few of these blows, you may want to lift your face as a grounder approaches. Except ... except ... that way you lose sight of the ball. You'll miss it then, sure as the ball is round. You have to keep your glove low and you have to look the zipping baseball into your glove, or else you'll hear the teasing cry: "You played every bounce right except the last one." You need equal measures of concentration and courage. When I stayed with a nasty grounder--and my father saw me stay with its final, hostile hop--I felt I had achieved something worthy of pride.

The fly ball was another kind of dragon. A child's first tendency is to run at a ball in the air; the heartless baseball then sails over his head. Although this causes no physical pain, it can raise another cry, "How come you're standing over here, when the ball bounced over there?" The psyche grimaces.

My father began fly-ball drills with soft, arcing tosses, gradually increasing height and range. Then he took a bat and tapped gentle fungos, explaining with great formality that "fungo" is one English word whose origin not even Noah Webster knew. When a baseball carries long, you want to turn. You should not run backwards; that is both awkward and slow. You spot the ball and turn and run to the point where it will descend.

If you can determine where it will descend. That is a tricky business, and one of the wonders of major league ball is the way outfielders run down 350-foot drives and make the play seem easy. I possessed no native gift for judging fly balls, but when I did succeed in running down a long one and taking it over my shoulder, my father beamed and said, "Good catch." The praise spoke banners, I worked harder to win those words, "Good catch," than I ever worked at homework or piano lessons. My mother noticed and she never forgot nor, until almost the end of a long life, did she ever entirely forgive my father, myself, or baseball.

We crossed Franklin Avenue and my father abruptly turned left, stirring in me a thrill of hope. "The records say that Keeler batted .432 in the 1890s," he said, "but the game was played differently then. The ball was dead. Batters poked instead of swinging from the heels. Just about the only way you hit a home run was when one of the outfielders fell down."

"Running backwards," I said, "instead of turning and taking the ball over your shoulder can make you fall down in the outfield."

"Conceivably," my father said. He pressed his lips together to suppress a grin, and I could see that he was pleased. "The most solid Brooklyn hitter in the modern game was Zack Wheat, who came from Missouri. He's a motorcycle cop in the Midwest these days. He was a terrific lefthand-hitting outfielder who had a singular trait. Waiting for the pitch, Buck--we called Zack Wheat `Buck'--waggled his back leg. Then he'd wallop a line drive off the right-field wall."

Zack Wheat was Buck Wheat. How bountiful is the trove of baseball nicknames.

"There were two pretty fair first basemen with French backgrounds," my father said. "Jake Daubert came first, around 1910. He scooped bad throws and ran down long, foul pops. A joy to watch. Jacques Fournier arrived in the 19205. Only an average fielder, but just about the best power hitter Brooklyn ever had."

We passed St. John's Place and Lincoln Place, walking alongside four-story apartments, tenements really, with street-level shops selling fish and stationery and toys. At length we reached Eastern Parkway, a broad avenue with six lanes of traffic and two access roads, set behind pedestrian pathways and green benches and rows of newly pruned sycamores. This distinctive boulevard was patterned after the Champs-Elysees, including at its font, Grand Army Plaza, an imposing monument for the Union war dead, modeled on the Arc de Triomphe.

"Brooklyn had a pitcher once," my father said, "a lefthander named Nap Rucker. Nap stood for Napoleon. He threw the slowest slowball in the world."

"If his pitches were so slow, why didn't everybody hit them? If he threw that slowly, I could have hit him, right?"

"Wrong. Nap Rucker had a deceptive windup. He made the batters think he was rearing back for a fastball. Then, after all that motion, he threw the slow one. Everybody missed the slowball because they had been completely and utterly fooled. Missed the slowball or popped it up."

I needed half an Eastern Parkway block to assimilate that. Pitching was more than throwing fast and accurately. You were also trying to confuse the hitters. You made it look as though you were going to throw fast and then you threw a slowball. You could make it look as though you were going to throw slow and fire the fastball. I got the idea. I didn't actually have a fastball when I was seven years old, but I believed one would appear in time through an unusual mix--practice and spontaneous generation. Then I'd like to try that deception stuff, fooling the hitters with crafty slow ones, and blowing them out of town with my unborn fastball.

"Dazzy Vance in his prime had a different trick," my father said. "For seven years he was the best strikeout pitcher in the league. Vance wore a long undershirt and he took a scissors and cut slits in the right sleeve. It ran clear down to the wrist. When Vance pitched, the long sleeve flapped. It was a white sleeve and the hitters had one heck of a time seeing that white baseball coming out of that white sleeve. Before they knew it, the fastball was in the catcher's mitt. Strike three."

"He's out," I said.

We reached the busy intersection of Eastern Parkway and Bedford Avenue, a street that ran almost the entire length of Brooklyn, from the cramped treeless blocks of Williamsburg into affluent Flatbush, before coming to its end near the fishing boats that docked at Sheepshead Bay. "If the Dodgers had all these good players," I said. I paused to savor the ballplayers' names:

Wee Willie Keeler.

Zack Wheat. Buckwheat.

Nap Rucker.

Dazzy Vance.

"If the Dodgers had all these good players, why is it that Brooklyn never wins the World Series, like the Giants and the Yankees?"

My father slowed his stride. "That's quite a long story," he said.

I had asked a defining question about an era. Cartago delenda est. Carthage must be destroyed. As I would later learn in a tower classroom at Erasmus Hall, Cato's repeated declaration defined an era in Rome. Why can't the Dodgers win the World Series? That question spoke to the core of early- and mid-twentieth-century life in Brooklyn.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 1, 2005 1:05 PM
Comments

Thanks for the post oj. I too have a little Spring fever.

Posted by: Bartman at January 1, 2005 2:53 PM

Fabulous. I'm quite sure God invented snow, and that ultimate antagonist, Spring, to help us savor baseball in the summer.

Posted by: JimGooding at January 1, 2005 3:20 PM
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